Yarrow, Charles de Lint

Yet another book I haven’t read in probably twenty years, Yarrow is the story of Cat Midhir, a fantasy novelist who, unbeknownst to everyone but herself, is dependent on her dreams for her writing.  Every night she has found herself in another world, where she sits at the feet of the tall fae bard Kothlen as he spins tales, which she on waking weaves into her books.  Every night of her life since she was very young she has had what for lack of better language she calls dreams – every night until three months ago, when she stopped dreaming at all, and because of that stopped writing.  We the reader know what she cannot: there’s an ancient creature called Lysistratus who feeds off dreams, off soul, and who finds her a rich source of sustenance.

Quick question: why on earth call a soul/dream vampire “Lysistratus”?? There was a real Lysistratus in the 4th century who was a highly skilled sculptor (a creator), and there was the fictional Lysistrata, the Athenian heroine of Aristophanes’s comedy about the women on both sides of a war deciding to withhold sex until peace could be achieved.  Not, either of them, anything remotely appropriate for this character, which is unusual, especially if my assumption is right, that he took the name for himself. 

This was probably one of the first de Lint books I read, which helped lead to my reading more, which is by and large a good thing … but if this was my first time reading it I’m not at all sure I’d pursue the author.  It’s not bad, at all; it’s well-written, characters are well done, there’s a good story, the setting (especially the Otherworld) is very good… I just didn’t like it.  I will, of course, being me, explain.

First off, the main character.  Cat Midhir is, we are told early in the book, sick unto death of explaining to everyone in the universe and his sister how her name is pronounced.  Honey?  I have to spell both my names to everyone in the universe, because both names have multiple variations.  You should have taken a self-explanatory pseudonym if it’s going to get to you this much, and you didn’t, and it’s an odd name so it will keep happening, so suck it up.  And that’s the thin end of the wedge, cracking open her character for the reader: there’s not much there, there.  She is a talented writer, but socially inept and alone (what ever happened to her parents?  It’s not a good thing that I can’t remember if we’re told).  Now that her dreams have abandoned her, she can’t write a single decent sentence, and I’m afraid I can’t muster up a single spark of sympathy for her.  I have delusions of authorship.  I’ve had a couple of wild dreams that might someday, with a lot of work, become something readable.  I have not ever had the ridiculous advantage of being able to sit at the feet of a bard, soak in his stories, and then write them down.  We are assured that she took the stories deeper than Kothlen did, expanding, fleshing out the places he skimmed over and using her own gift of expression to turn them into best-selling novels… but we are also told several times that every word she tries to write without the umbilical cord of the Otherworld is “lifeless”.  I’ll buy that she’s not merely transcribing but actually writing – but how am I supposed to feel anything but mild contempt for a woman who has sponged off others for her livelihood?  A woman who has never had to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper and search for what comes next in the story?  Given a rich source like Kothlen, I’d be a best-seller too.  If anything, her “writer’s block” gives me a self-righteous and slightly perverse delight.  Again, suck it up, honey, and sink or swim on your own damn merits.  Wet dishrag, her.

The other characters, as I said, are well done: Peter, the bookstore owner who has tentatively befriended her over the years and who becomes a true friend now; Ben, the cab-driver who has had a minor obsession with her since he read her first book (though I kept thinking he was an old man for some reason); Mick, the mohawked punk-rocker with a heart, apparently, of gold; Rick, whose name is well chosen as the only word I can think of to describe him ends in “rick”… The Otherworld characters are not as strong, but sketched in well enough to serve, if not as clearly as I would like.  Some of the many red shirts in the story were given more time and delineation than the major characters of the Otherworld, and I resented being asked to get to know and like them (which I didn’t, always) in the pages before they were hideously murdered.  That was actually a problem with the beginning of the book, as well: a large number of characters were introduced, one after the other, and it was fairly clear which ones weren’t going to be around long.  After that it was just a matter of Lysistratus picking them off at will. 

My main issue with characterization shouldn’t be a big one, but is: their language.  As in profanity.  It’s constant, and every non-fae male character, antagonist or pro-, cusses like a sailor.  And it’s not just nice pungent anglo-saxon words, but it’s those anglo-saxon words with “jesus” (no caps) in front, which … Come on.  I’m not a prude when it comes to strong language – anyone who thinks so has not driven with me on the highway – but this was just too much.  On every page, every circumstance from minor annoyance to lives being threatened prompts the same response.  It gets old.

Also, I was reminded frequently that de Lint has a horror background under another name.  There were strong horror elements throughout – Lysistratus is evil, and does evil for evil’s sake, and it’s no fun to read.  And that’s something of a problem.  As with profanity, some is fine, even good in context.  More is not better.  If I want to read horror, I will read horror.  I don’t want to read horror.  I don’t appreciate a constant barrage of blood-soaked scenes packaged as a fantasy – particularly with my edition’s cover – except for the skull in the foreground, it leads a prospective reader to believe the concentration is on the fae, not the evil.  I’m uneasy with the idea that L stole people’s souls, too, but that’s my own issue.  Or, to be more timely, hang-up.  Which leads me to – –

A last issue, sometimes fairly easily overlooked but still a distraction, was that the book did not age well: it is very, very dated.  Very.  This doesn’t usually bother me in a book written in the 80’s, any more than reading, say, Dickens does.  But here it was startling at times (there was a comment about the awareness of Reagan in office south of the border apparently intent on starting a war, which was an unexpected and unusual Canadian political commentary), and almost funny at times (how many times would a cell phone have made all the difference?  And – they have turntables!  Aw!), but frequently it was just … odd.  The name-checking was annoying – there was a great detail of corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude … who was on the turntable, what books Peter was ordering, what books everyone was reading (everyone) (seriously) – it felt grafted on to prove de Lint was “hip”.  Oddest, though, and unintentionally hilarious, was Lysistratus humming the Human League song “Don’t You Want Me”.  The radio station I leave on at work plays this now and then, and I get the joke.  It’s just not funny.  He could have been an amazing Big Bad.  He wasn’t.  He was the well-dressed “Dude” (*sigh*) with the piercing blue eyes who you really want to avoid, and particularly to avoid having sex with.  Who has terrible taste in music.  That detracts from his fearsomeness, and I think it would have even in the 80’s.

***minor spoilers***

The ending felt a little rushed.  I still don’t think Cat did enough, and what she did was undermined and cleaned up to pave the way for a happily-ever-after, with some major questions left unanswered (Is the whole Otherworld, or is it not, part of her?  And how in hell is she the deer woman whose name escapes me?  And why?  And when??).  I resented the death of one major character, rather than regretting it, and unfortunately the result of “the Dude”‘s eye contact – paralysis – was sometimes funnier than it was scary.  And in the end … two things.  I can’t help but be resentful that someone who is never shown as deserving has a devoted lover, a loyal friend, access to faery, and a continuing career I’d kill for.  The other thing is: I’ve been listening to a movie review/writing podcast called “The Popcorn Dialogues”, and a comment made in one I just heard was that if at the end of a romantic comedy you’re thinking “Geez, I really thought she’d end up with the other guy”, it’s not a successful romance story.  That’s the case here: I don’t quite get why we needed both Ben and Peter.

I’m really a bit surprised that I’m not (with a quick search) finding fan art of Kothlen and Tiddy Mun and all… I would have thought it was obligatory.

Overall, three stars; probably won’t read it again unless in twenty more years I forget not only the book but this review; disappointed; not in the mood for more de Lint soon.  But I do admit I want to read Cat’s books.

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